At age nine, I had 49 siblings.
I didn't play hopscotch with my school friends at recess or watch The Brady Bunch on television with my siblings. My mother didn't pack my school lunch and my dad didn't give me a hug at the door, wishing me a good day. Instead, my parents, who were on the run from federal authorities, abandoned me in Mexico for about a year, leaving me with a family I didn't know.
I was fed each day and had a foam pad to sleep on at night. But I found it difficult to sleep in this strange place, so far from my mom, the fourth of cult leader Ervil LeBaron's 13 wives. Why couldn't I stay with her and the rest of my family in the United States, instead of in this dingy, dusty apartment south of the border?
Even though I had grown up in polygamy, I had no idea of the truth: I was auditioning as a potential wife.
My father had promised a man named Rafael several of his daughters in marriage. If Rafael, a recent convert to my father's polygamist sect, was still in favor with him when we girls reached marriageable age - typically 15 - it would happen. My sisters and I were pawns to be auctioned off to the highest bidder, those followers willing to do whatever my father asked, no matter what it involved.
Morning dawned with the promise of another scorching hot day, offering no relief from the oppressive trifecta of Mexican heat, sun and humidity. The air was stifling, limiting our breath and energy. Still, chores beckoned. We couldn't wait for pleasant temperatures or a cloudy day to work.
Rafael's wife, Antonia, ordered us to help her clean house, which we did, no questions asked, no complaints issued. We kids knew better than to voice dissatisfaction with any of the adults in our lives - or with any circumstances in our lives, for that matter. God had granted us what we were supposed to have. We couldn't argue with our lot in life.
I squeezed water out of an old rag and began wiping down the kitchen table and chairs. Out of the corner of my eye, I watched as Antonia picked up the thick slabs of yellow foam the children used as bedding. One by one, she shook them to remove the dust. As she shook the pallet I slept on, some dirt fell to the floor.
Antonia gasped - not a surprised, spontaneous utterance, but a calculated, overly dramatic response intended to garner attention and show her utter disgust. In a loud voice, she proclaimed for everyone in the house to hear, "¡Mira qué cochina es Anna! ¡Ni si quiera quita la tierra de su cama antes de dormirse!" ("Look what a pig Anna is! She doesn't even remove the dirt from her bed before sleeping in it!") Then she burst into cackling laughter as she continued to scrutinize my little sponge "bed."
Shame flooded me. I felt blood rushing to my cheeks, and I instinctively covered them with both hands. I wished I could run and hide, perhaps joining the disabled man next door so we could compare our inadequacies. I didn't realize I was dirty, but of course I was. I spent the greater part of the day on the dusty Mexican streets, trying desperately to sell homemade items. Though lush greenery grew wild in the tropical humidity, the poverty-stricken area we lived in had little grass or foliage at all.Most of the roads I walked were nothing more than dirt and dust that would cling to me and my clothes as I got into bed at night. But Antonia had no compassion for a little girl sent to live far away from her mother. She didn't quietly show me the dirt and offer to teach me how to shake the foam clean each morning or evening. She didn't unobtrusively brush off the dust, allowing me to keep my dignity.
The weeks went by with the same routine. Then one day I had a fortunate turn of events: The wealthy woman who answered the first door I knocked on took pity on me and bought the entire cake I was selling. She told me it would be her family's dessert that night. I couldn't imagine a meal that was followed by dessert. We rarely had anything to eat other than beans and tortillas, sometimes with Spanish rice, at every meal.
I skipped back to the apartment, cheerful for the first time in days, as I imagined the praise I would receive for my quick work. I climbed the stairs, entered the apartment and noticed that the house seemed far too quiet. Where was everyone? I walked in, dug the change out of the pocket of my polyester skirt and plopped it on the rickety kitchen table.
"You're home early."
I turned, surprised to see Rafael standing there with an odd look on his face, like he was hungry.
"A woman bought my whole cake today." I beamed at him as I showed him the pile of pesos on the table.
He quickly crossed the floor toward me and petted my hair. "You're a good girl, Little Anna. You know how to get into people's hearts, don't you?" He twirled several strands of my long, blonde hair in his slender fingers.
"I, well, I guess I'd better go clean up and start warming up the beans."
"What's the rush? Antonia and the kids won't be home for a while. They went shopping at the mercado. Come, let's sit and talk."
An intense heat spread up my neck to my cheeks until they felt ablaze. I hoped Rafael wouldn't notice.
"Ah, you like that idea." He grabbed me by the hand, his thin, clammy hand swallowing my tiny fingers. "Come with me."
"I can't. I have work to finish before Antonia gets home." I tried to pull my hand out of his, but his grip held me tightly. Instead, I stumbled along behind him as he led me to the bedroom and then toward the large bed he shared with Antonia. The tattered bedspread was faded and threadbare.
"Antonia's not here. I'm the boss now, and I'm saying you don't have to work right now. I want you to sit and rest for a while." He picked me up and plopped me on the bed beside him. My feet didn't reach the floor, so my legs just dangled over the edge.
I scooted to the far end of the bed, but he quickly shortened the distance between us by moving to the middle. My instincts told me to run, but I feared what this forceful man might do to me if I did. I didn't dare defy him. I knew better than to refuse a direct command. Deep in my gut a burning and churning commenced, like it had the first few times police had raided one of our homes. Something was off, something had interrupted the norm, and I felt powerless to do anything to stop it. I just wanted to get out of that room and as far away from him as possible. Where is everybody? I thought.
"Such a beautiful girl." Again, he reached over and touched strands of my hair and allowed them to slide slowly through his fingers.
I pushed his hand away, but he wasn't easily deterred. He moved closer to me. Without warning, Rafael placed his hand on my thigh. His breathing got heavier, and his voice lowered as he spoke. Frozen by fear, I gave only short, cursory replies. My body stiffened, and the blood from my beating heart pounded between my ears.
"Let's talk about love," he said.
He leaned in close to me until his mouth was mere inches from my own and I nearly gagged on his rancid breath. I turned my face from his. I closed my eyes tight, and willed him away with every fiber of my being. I wanted to run away from him, but my body remained frozen. I could scarcely breathe. "I-I don't want to talk about love."
"But you're so beautiful. Someday you'll be my wife. Your dad told me so."
My stomach churned as his words sunk in. I had never imagined becoming anyone's wife. My days were spent trying to scrounge enough to eat, to help care for my siblings, to serve the kingdom. I had never truly had a childhood! And now, it seemed, I would have no future because my father had promised to give me away to this man. To Ervil LeBaron, a daughter was a commodity to be bought and sold. I wasn't worth even being told about his plan.
Someday you'll be my wife. Your dad told me so."
I mustered my strength and courage - from where, I don't know - quickly ducked under his outstretched arm, jumped off the bed and fled out the apartment door, preferring the streets of Catemaco over being alone with Rafael.
After that horrible encounter, whenever the two of us were alone, Rafael started in again. He never forced me. Instead, it seemed he was genuinely trying to woo me by rubbing my back and shoulders or stroking my hair. He believed his touch and whispered affirmations would draw me to him.
Rafael wasn't my only "suitor." In the months that followed, more of my dad's followers began to casually - and routinely - approach me about becoming one of their wives. Once I began to realize that these grown men only initiated advances to me when Antonia wasn't home, I did my best to avoid being at the apartment alone. As a young girl, having my dad's followers approach me about being one of their wives confused me. Still, I knew deep inside I would someday have to marry one of them, thus fulfilling my duty to my polygamist father.
The women in our family were never allowed to make up their own minds. The girls had even less freedom. We were commodities; others ascertained our value and traded us at their discretion. I was too young to understand the leering, touching, and sexually motivated overtures. I just knew how inappropriate the situations felt and how uncomfortable they made me. Sadly, I couldn't get away from that place. And I had no dad or mom to protect me.